Trade War 2020: What Iowa Tells us About Trump’s Chances in the Presidential Election

By Emily Hruban

The United States’ ongoing trade war could be President Donald Trump’s biggest liability in the 2020 elections. Many of those bearing the brunt of the conflict are Trump supporters, especially in swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Iowa, which could impact his chance of reelection later this year.

In the United States, the presidential election is a long, drawn out process. For over a year, over two dozen Democratic hopefuls have campaigned across the country, trying to win votes, media attention, and fundraising dollars. Candidates must first beat out their fellow Democrats in a four-month process called the primaries, in order to face off against President Trump in the general elections in November.

Following a decades-old tradition, the first state to participate in the process is Iowa. When Iowans gathered in school gymnasiums and community centers on Monday night, Senator Bernie Sanders and Mayor Pete Buttigieg came out as clear front-runners.

First in the Nation

Although all states participate in the primary process, Iowa has a particularly strong voice, as success in early states leads to more donations, media coverage, and support from voters in the later primaries. Likewise, a poor showing in Iowa can destroy a candidate’s chances of cinching in the nomination. Iowa’s choice has served as an accurate predictor for just over 55 percent of the party nominees since 1972.[i]

Iowa’s position has been debated in recent years. Critics argue that Iowa’s predominantly white and rural population does not reflect the diversity of the country as a whole.[ii] However, for now, it remains a key step on any candidate’s path to the White House.

Given Iowa’s importance, candidates log hundreds of hours zigzagging across the state, attempting to woo voters at rallies, cookouts, and other events. This year, Democratic candidates collectively spent $45 million dollars on advertising in the state.[iii] “You can’t turn on the TV without getting absolutely harassed,” explains Ben Smith, a farmer in Marshalltown, Iowa. Candidates travel to the most remote and rural corners of the state, with some visiting all of Iowa’s 99 counties, like Senator Amy Klobuchar.

This year, Democratic candidates collectively spent $45 million dollars on advertising in the state.

However, despite their efforts, the candidates failed to spark caucus participation on par with 2008 (approximately 240,000), when former President Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses and later the presidency. [iv] Instead, turnout this year was, according to party officials, “on pace” with 2016 levels (roughly 170,000), when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton faced off against Senator Sanders.[v] Low turnout suggests that the Democratic nominee may have problems igniting the party’s base in the general election.

Barack Obama won Iowa handily in the general elections in both 2008 and 2012, with support from urban and rural voters, but in 2016, President Donald Trump took home 51.1 percent of the vote (compared to Clinton’s 41.7 percent).[vi] Trump won 93 of Iowa’s 99 counties, managing to flip 31 (mostly rural) counties that had gone to President Obama four years earlier. Likewise, Trump was able to flip counties in other key states in 2016, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. These counties, and states, hold the key to a Democrat winning back the presidency in 2020.

Trade War

Despite the time and resources spent on the ground, Democratic candidates have struggled to capitalize on Trump’s Achilles heel – the ongoing trade war – in order to win these voters back. Iowa is 90 percent farmland and has been particularly affected by China’s retaliatory tariffs on soybeans. “Typically [Chinese buyers] were buying about one out of every three rows of soybeans in the U.S.,” notes Grant Kimberly, the Director of Market Development at the Iowa Soybean Association. Since the tariffs went in place, exports have been down, along with the price of beans, hurting many farmers’ bottom lines.

Despite the financial impact of the tariffs, many farmers remain supportive of the president and his trade war. “For years, it’s gone the other way and [China has] had the upper hand,” says corn and soybean farmer Roger Elmore, who thinks “we should [not] sit idle and just be walked all over.” For Elmore, Trump’s willingness to stand up to China has been a welcome change.

Likewise, Andy Michaels, who also farms corn and soybeans, says China is, “usually trying to pull something,” recalling a long history of Chinese buyers pulling out of deals, and Beijing unexpectedly changing trade policies, all of which hurt business for him and others in the state.

Ella Hommell, a student who grew up on a farm in Eldora, Iowa, echoes his concern, “A lot of people talk about how [Chinese customers will] maybe put in an order for X amount of bushels and then cancel that order, which kind of tanks the market, and then when the market’s lower, they’ll go back and actually buy it.” Furthermore, Hommell notes that concerns about intellectual property have also soured opinions about China amongst farmers, citing a “case where Chinese nationals were stealing [seed plants used to create GMOs] out of a central Iowa cornfield.” Seven people were accused of attempting to steal the plants and smuggle them to China.[vii]

However, as supportive as many farmers have been of the trade war, “as it [has dragged] on, […] this hurts,” says Ben Smith, a young soybean farmer in Marshalltown, Iowa. Twenty-eight billion dollars of government subsidies have offset some of their losses, but many farmers are feeling the pain of the conflict more the longer it continues.[viii]

Twenty-eight billion dollars of government subsidies have offset some of their losses, but many farmers are feeling the pain of the conflict more the longer it continues.

A further challenge for farmers is the unpredictability of the situation. Caleb Applegate, who farms soybeans, corn, and hogs, has noticed that, “Over the last couple years, some of the difficulties have just been the volatility […] We kind of factor in – there’s weather volatility and that just happens.” However, “Policies in Beijing and Washington, I don’t know what’s going to happen.” This volatility is a challenge for farmers, explains farmer Douglas Svendson, because “machinery is very expensive. And crop inputs are very expensive. And people borrow money to put crops in the ground, they borrow money to buy machinery. Those payments need to be made. So you need a predictable stream of income.” The trade war’s ups and downs create uncertainty for the farmers as they make decisions about their own fields, and also cause volatility in the commodity market. Rumors of deals – or further tariffs – can change the price of soybeans overnight.

The situation is difficult for many farmers. Applegate observes, “I don’t know who I’m frustrated with. Am I frustrated with China? Am I frustrated with our administration for not getting something done?”

A Democratic Alternative?

For those frustrated with the pace and uncertainty of the trade negotiations, many in rural Iowa do not see a viable alternative to Trump in the Democratic field. Svendsen observes that the Democratic candidates are focusing on issues that, “don’t appeal to [farmers] very much.”

Most of the Democratic candidates have made the case for a few policies meant to appeal to farmers, like increasing access to broadband internet in rural areas. However, not all of the rural policies they advocate for are well received in farm country. Many candidates, including Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Elizabeth Warren, are pushing for more environmentally-friendly farming practices, which some farmers say are out of touch with the realities of the industry.

Hommel notes, “There hasn’t been any of [Democrats] that their agricultural policy just kind of blew me away.” In contrast, “I think Donald Trump is trying to focus more on that. I know that he’s trying to make progress with that.”

Most of the candidates’ rural platforms fail to mention the trade war at all. Although former-Vice President Joe Biden’s website promises that he “will stand up to China,” and “make sure our trade policy works for American farmers,” he offers few specifics on what that would mean.

Instead, candidates are emphasizing how important it is for them to beat Trump, a sentiment that plays well in more urban and left-leaning areas, but is a concern for some farmers. “I don’t really hear of issues except that they don’t want the guy that’s in office in office,” says Andy Michaels. “If you look across the board, the only thing they’re going to say is they don’t like the guy in office, they want him out. I mean, they aren’t really addressing any issues.”

Many farmers also worry that a change in leadership could undermine the president’s efforts to secure a deal with China. Ben Smith sees this clearly, “you go through this process of you get a new person in, and then they try to get their ball rolling of what they want, and then by the time they get to where they want it, the country decides no, we want the opposite.” He worries specifically about what that means for a president’s negotiating power, “So then when you’re in these trade negotiations with China, they can sit there and say, well, this guy, we’re not negotiating with him. Let’s just wait six months and see if he’s even around.”

Four More Years?

From the outside, the trade conflict might appear to be President Trump’s greatest vulnerability, especially in swing states impacted, like Iowa, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. However, the candidates’ inability to change the minds of well-informed farmers directly impacted by the trade war suggests that they may have similar troubles in other swing states needed to win the presidential election this fall. Low voter turnout in the Iowa caucuses seems to confirm this.

In the end, “All I’m looking for is stability,” says Ben Smith, the young farmer. “If a new candidate can’t supply it, then we’re rolling for another four years.”

Contact:

Emily Hruban
Manager, Transatlantic Relations
+1.202.621.1720
emily.hruban@bfna.org